Sitting in the back row of our storefront church at the end of a long week, I asked God for a greater harvest of souls. I admit I was visualizing the families who attend our church and secretly counting the number of heads. “God, bring a greater harvest!” I cried out. I can’t remember if I opened my Bible to the story or if it was brought to my mind by Holy Spirit. Either way, the image of Jesus’ disciples whining about not catching enough fish after a full day of work flooded my imagination. “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some” (John 21:6, ESV). The words echoed in my head as I pictured nets filled to overflowing. However, this time, instead of an abundance of fish, I saw an abundance of people. Not just any people, but hundreds of beautiful, smiling Caribbean men and women being brought in. Jesus told His friends, “From now on you will fish for people” (Luke 5:10, NCV), and God was giving me a glimpse into the possibilities for our church.
GateWay Community Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., has been involved with outreach to migrant workers since it was led by founding pastor Mike Gordon. It was shortly after my arrival as lead pastor in 2016 that I was made aware of the gap in support for temporary foreign agricultural workers in our community. Migrant agricultural workers are employed and live in our region anywhere from six weeks to nine months of the year, yet they continue to go unnoticed. In a desire to do our part and to build relationships with our seasonal neighbours, GateWay began to volunteer with other community grassroots organizations. We served at an annual event called the “Peach Pickers Picnic” which expressed our gratitude and provided culturally appropriate foods to both Caribbean and Mexican workers. We filled up welcome kits with supplies for farm workers upon their arrival in early spring. Items such as a face cloth, hand towel, snacks, toothbrushes, socks, and more were a simple way to let the workers know they were welcomed and appreciated for the sacrifices they make. We connected with Bikes for Farmworkers, a group of passionate retirees who repair used bicycles, a main source of transportation on the farms. By 2020, we formed an official partnership with the group as they expressed a desire to be part of a trustworthy church that held the same values they did.
In 2017, there were about 550,000 temporary foreign workers in Canada, accounting for 2.9% of total employment.1 In the Niagara Region alone, we have close to 4,000 temporary foreign workers. As a pastor, I quickly joined a couple of non-profit networks in our region whose mission and passion were to connect, empower, and serve the needs of this segment of our population. I did a lot of listening and observing in those early years. I brought others from our church along with me. I soon realized how much the secular organizations valued the spiritual care component churches have to offer when providing resources and support for temporary foreign workers. Christianity is a large part of life back home for many of these men and women, and without a connection with other believers and opportunities to worship together, the feelings of isolation only seem to increase. A holistic approach to ministering to migrant workers was the only way to see a harvest.
It was during a network gathering that I was introduced to Donna Brown, who is the chair of an organization called Caribbean Workers Outreach Project (CWOP). Donna is a Spirit-filled believer with a passion to provide practical and spiritual care to workers. Donna and I became friends, and as the crisis of COVID-19 hit our world, the vision for responding to the needs and broadening our nets as a church began to materialize. Donna became the Migrant Workers Outreach Co-ordinator at GateWay Church in 2020. Together, with other committed believers and organizations in our region, we were able to provide emergency care and relief to well over 1,200 workers that year, serving close to 50 farms. We continue to do good works and make a significant contribution in our community. Recently we were a part of a weekly evening service for the Caribbean farm workers in our town. We saw dozens of workers come to the altar, many dedicating their lives to Jesus. Donna shares: “There are considerable social, cultural, spiritual, and economic circumstances that impact the migrant worker experience. We are committed to treating the stranger who sojourns in our community as a neighbour and friend, and to loving him/her as ourself. The harvest is ripe here in Niagara. As an organization and community partners, we need to be ready for reaping!”
The work isn’t limited to our region alone. Through our various networks, we’ve come to recognize there are genuine expressions of care and advocacy for farm workers all across our great country. Could it be that Jesus has called us to cast out the net once more? I can’t wait to see an even greater harvest.
Michelle Mercer is the lead pastor of GateWay Community Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. She is married to Duane and has two teenage daughters. Michelle serves as a member at large on the Western Ontario District Executive of the PAOC and has been faithful in ministry for over 20 years. This article appeared in the October/November/December 2022 issue of testimony/Enrich, a quarterly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. © 2022 The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. Photos courtesy of Michelle Mercer. Pictured: A cricket match in 2022 and a Thanksgiving outreach.
- Yuqian Lu, “The distribution of temporary foreign workers across industries in Canada,” June 3, 2020, Statistics Canada, accessed July 21, 2022, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/45-28-0001/2020001/article/00028-eng.htm